"Best Before" Dates: Planned Obsolescence for Food

It seems I'm stuck on food issues these days. So, after writing the frugal gourmet and slow cooker articles, here's another:


Best before dates drive my buying behaviour, but not in the way you might think. I plan my shopping based on what will go on sale because stores need to move products that are no longer "acceptable" to sell at regular price because they're near or have reached their "best before" date.

Lucky for me, the stores in my area hold discounted items for a few days before, or as opposed to, just throwing them out.

There are many types of products with "best before", "sell by" or "use by" dates:

  • Baked goods
  • Dairy products
  • Meats & seafood
  • Pet food
  • Packaged foods
  • Canned & frozen goods
  • Coffees, teas and other dry and prepared beverages
  • Beauty products
  • Some household cleaners
  • Pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications
 This short CBS The Early Show piece called "The Truth Behind 'Sell-By' Dates on Foods" can offer some reassurance about how long you can store foods at home.

This short CBS The Early Show piece called "The Truth Behind 'Sell-By' Dates on Foods" can offer some reassurance about how long you can store foods at home.

When it comes to the above categories of products, how does the manufacturer know:

  • How a merchandizer has stored the product?
  • How you have or will store the product in your home? Heat and moisture levels can greatly affect a food's longevity, as does its location in your fridge--lower shelves and further back in the fridge are best.
  • When you opened the product? Fundamentally, a product in a sealed container doesn't come into contact with contaminants until it's been opened and contaminants shorten shelf life.
  • How you intend to consume the product? How you use the product will have a big impact on how long you can store it. A vegetable or fruit you intend to purée; a loaf of bread you intend to dry to make bread crumbs, croutons or stuffing; a dairy product you intend to cook with does not have to be in pristine condition. It might not even be desirable!
 Food labelling facts from "The Dating Game" NRDC Issue Brief. Click image to read more.

Food labelling facts from "The Dating Game" NRDC Issue Brief. Click image to read more.

The fact is manufacturers don't know. The truth is that how the food is processed and stored before and after purchase has more to do with the quality and safety of the food you eat than the information an expiration date provides.

 

How Much Can You Save & On What?

Here's a list of items I've purchased for 30% to 80% off in the last 3 months thanks to "best before" dates or fresh food clearance bins:

  • Whipping cream - 30% - 80% off (I bought over 2 litres of it at 80% off! Woohoo!)
  • Sausage, steak, bacon, chicken and fish - 30% to 50% off
  • Various fruits and vegetables (apples, squash, romaine, tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms) - 50% off
  • Sour cream, yogourt, cheeses & dips - 50% off
  • Coffee and tea - 50% to 80% off
  • Baked goods - 50% off
  • Hair products (shampoo, conditioner, colouring) - 75% off
  • Dark belgian chocolate - 20% off an already-discounted sale price
  • Liquid laundry detergent - 50% off

Yes, even laundry detergent gets marked down because it's "getting old". At least this type of product does not get thrown out by stores or consumers!

The list above is only what I recall. I'm sure there's been much more. As you can see, there are many savings to be had because of a simple misunderstanding of what constitutes "good and safe food". 

How much of the products I purchased ended up turning bad or getting thrown out prematurely?

NONE! Zip! Nadda!

...even government supporters of [using date labels]...recognized that assuring the microbiological safety of food was not a goal that could be meaningfully advanced using date labels.
— The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash

And no, I've NEVER been sick from any food I've purchased this way, nor has any household product not worked properly. And, when I do cook something that has reached or past its due date...or not, I ALWAYS trust my nose. It's the best tool to know whether something is edible or not. And when it comes to meats, you can always trust your slow cooker to cook cuts of meat thoroughly without making it taste like shoe leather. The only thing I've ever stayed away from is lunch meats because they are a product subject to frequent recalls, which has nothing to do with labelling.

Five Tips to Help You Make the Most of Discounted Grocery Items

1. Timing Is Key

The timing for discounting of "best before" date items tends to differ from store to store, but mid-week appears to be a good time to shop. Every store tends to have a discount section in most of their main departments, such as meats & dairy, produce and baked goods. Ask the staff in the dairy and meat departments about their routine because they tend to work on a predetermined schedule. I make these areas my first stop before completing the remainder of my shopping.  

2. Buy Only What You Regularly Use & What Makes Sense

To ensure you are getting a deal, don't buy:

  • Name brand items when you usually buy generic, unless the brand name is still quite a deal.
  • A smaller size item unless you're sure it's less expensive.
  • A product you've never purchased before, unless you've been meaning to try it or know you'll absolutely make good use of it. Never buy something just because it's on clearance!
  • A clearance item that's more expensive than an equivalent product you would be just as happy with, even if it's a substitute item. Again, just because something is discounted doesn't automatically make it a good value.
  • A clearance item for someone else who doesn't share your views on "best before" dates. There's no need to harm the relationship because of a difference of opinion in this department. If you're not sure, check first. 

3. Combine Clearance Item Purchases with Other Discounts

Did you know that clearance item discounts can often be combined with other store discounts? For example, if a store offers 10% off a $100-dollar purchase, you'll receive an extra 10% off the net discounted price of your clearance item. I've managed to do this with most of the items I listed above (though I showed you the discounts on the items themselves, without including this additional benefit). 

4. Buy and Freeze for Future Use

If you're new to this idea and want be certain you get good value, it starts with ensuring that the food doesn't go to waste. If you have no plans for a food you know you'll eat but not right away, prep it and freeze it until you're ready to use it. I've successfully frozen chopped peppers, carrots & celery to use in soups and slow cooker recipes; whipping cream, spreads & yogourt; chopped bananas, berries and other fruits for baking; and meats and and cheeses.

5. Build & Use Your Network

You can't be everywhere all the time. Over the years, I've increasingly kept a few people in mind when I see certain items on sale. If it makes sense, I text/email/phone the person in question either to inform them of the offer or to ask if they'd like me to pick some up for them. They return the favour when they come across a deal worthy of a "check in". 

Now I wouldn't get in touch with people for every clearance savings opportunity. That's a bit much. I've done so for staple items, such as coffee, detergent and the like that I know will be used by the folks I ping with these opportunities.

Still Not Sure? Here's Where to Start.

If you're not sure this is for you but you want to give it a try, here's a list of items, from most to least approachable for you to dip a toe in the water:

  1. Any beauty products. If it's sealed, you're good to go.
  2. Coffees and teas, as long as they're sealed, will offer good value and decent shelf life at home once opened.
  3. Sour cream - it keeps for what seems like forever. Hey, it's already sour!
  4. Cheese - lasts well past its due date. Always...especially hard cheeses.
  5. Yogourt - constantly makes it to the clearance section and keeps fairly well. Only buy what you know you like and will eat within a few days. It just tastes better.
  6. Any fruits and vegetables - You really can't go wrong with anything you intend to cook. Just go with what looks good to you. The apples pictured earlier in this article were perfect. I have no idea why they ended up in the discount bin.

What about you? Are you an old hand at making the best use of your "best before" date knowledge or a newbie venturing into this aspect of grocery shopping? Do you think this is a bad idea? Whatever your thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them.


For more information on the issue of food safety and food wastage in the western world and on the need for new labelling regulations, you might be interested in the following resources:

 A critically acclaimed 2014 documentary about food waste and food rescue. 

A critically acclaimed 2014 documentary about food waste and food rescue. 

 An HBR blog article that provides food waste statistics and recommendations for food labelling reform.

An HBR blog article that provides food waste statistics and recommendations for food labelling reform.

 A critically acclaimed 2009 documentary about dumpster diving culture and food waste in America.

A critically acclaimed 2009 documentary about dumpster diving culture and food waste in America.